The Essentials of Volunteer Management

Volunteers can be a great asset to a youth development program. In fact, many youth programs operate largely on the efforts of volunteers. Recruiting, managing and leveraging the talents of volunteers involves a significant investment of time and staff resources to be successful. This module focuses on the basic elements of volunteer management to assist the learner to increase their understanding of how to engage and support volunteers to be most effective in their roles within the organization.


  • Identify the elements of organizational planning before recruiting and engaging volunteers
  • Develop effective procedures for recruitment, application, and placement of volunteers
  • Create a plan for ongoing supervision and management of volunteers
  • Identify methods and strategies for meaningful recognition of volunteer efforts

An Overview of Volunteer Management

Volunteers are motivated to donate their time, skills and expertise to youth serving programs for a variety of different reasons. Youth development and afterschool programs may believe that they should utilize volunteers in their efforts, as a way to serve more youth in their community with limited resources. Not every organization is in need of, or prepared to utilize volunteers, however. Effective volunteer programs begin with a solid planning and assessment process to determine the need for volunteers and areas where volunteer support could be most effective for the organization.

Next steps include developing clear strategies for:

  • Recruitment, Application and Placement
  • Orientation and Training
  • Supervision and Recognition

Volunteer programs (and a ‘volunteer program’ could mean that there is one volunteer or 100 in your organization) require effort, staff resources and are therefore not ‘free’ means to increase staffing in an organization. In the following sections, we’ll explore each of the steps of developing, implementing and managing a volunteer program in youth development and afterschool programs.

Planning for Volunteers: Assessing the Need

Begin by taking an assessment with the staff (and possibly board members) of the organization’s current functions, goals and future direction to determine if volunteers are needed, and to determine if the organization has the resources in place to begin a volunteer program. By asking these critical questions, a clear picture will emerge regarding the roles volunteers may fill, the skill sets needed, and the scope of volunteer program you’ll want to establish.

Planning Questions to Determine the Need for Volunteers in the Organization

Before recruiting your first volunteer, host a planning session with staff to help determine answers to the following:

  • What projects or new initiatives would we like to be doing that we’re not doing now?
  • What projects would we be able to expand if we had additional personnel to support them?
  • What is on your wish list for the program or organization?
  • What is on your to-do list that never gets accomplished because you don’t have the time or resources?
  • Is there a population that needs to be served that we have not been able to serve (within the boundaries of the organization’s mission)?
  • Is there a program that you have been wanting to start but don’t have the resources?
  • What skill sets are we missing in-house that are needed to support our projects (e.g. marketing, technology, financial, training, etc.)?

Manager’s Tip: Make this a brainstorming session that invites all staff to share information. Use the techniques outlined in the Effective Facilitation for Productive Meetings and Trainings module to help make this session as productive as possible!

Download a copy of the planning Session questions  

When the results of the planning session indicate that the organization may benefit from volunteers to help further the goals of the organization and reach more of the community, continue the planning process by revisiting the mission and vision of the organization. Post the mission and vision statements of the organization where they are easily visible during the planning session as a reference point for the team as they further refine the design of the volunteer program. Consider the following set of questions as a starting point to guide the team through this next phase of planning. Develop additional questions to fit your organization’s planning needs.

Volunteer Duties and Position Descriptions

Successful volunteer programs involve significant planning and preparation before the first volunteer is recruited. Naturally, people who are interested in volunteering with your program care about the mission of your organization and are motivated to help achieve it, but in order to make an impact, they will need clear information about what they will be expected to do. Likewise, the organization must be clear about what skills and duties are needed from volunteers.

Once the general goals and purpose of the volunteer program have been identified, it is time to define the job duties expected of volunteers, and develop the volunteer position description. The following elements are often included in volunteer position descriptions. Feel free to develop additional items as you develop your own position descriptions. Be sure to provide a copy of the volunteer position description to each volunteer, and review it with him or her to ensure mutual understanding of what is expected. Retain a copy in the volunteer records.

Elements of a Volunteer Position Description

Position Purpose

Special Skills or Experience Required

Responsibilities of Volunteer

Time Commitment (by day/ week/month/year)

Is Training Required, and will it be provided?


Reports to…

Want an example? Check out this volunteer mentor position description to help get you started…

Preparing the Training Plan for Volunteers

Preparedness and training is one of the first events to take place when volunteers arrive in your organization. Make sure to prepare for this important step before welcoming volunteers to join your efforts. 


Most organizations have an orientation plan for new employees, to ensure that staff members feel welcomed, understand basic policies and procedures, gain a solid understanding of the overall organization’s work, and how their position supports the organization’s goals.  Although volunteers are not ‘employed’ staff members in the traditional paycheck-earning sense, it is important to offer all volunteers an orientation to the organization to make them feel welcomed, and learn how their efforts support mission achievement. Volunteers should receive clear and detailed information regarding safety protocols and emergencies in addition to the basics such as where to park and what dress code is acceptable.

Offer volunteer orientation either in a group session or individually before volunteers are assigned to their duties. Be available to ask questions, and be sure to thank your volunteers for selecting your program to share their time and talents with!


Will volunteers work with equipment? Are there protocols they need to be aware of? Would it be helpful for your volunteers to have a crash course in adolescent development? Plan to deliver training for volunteers to prepare them for the work you are asking them to do, and provide follow up sessions to support their continued engagement. Partner with other organizations with expertise in topics that may be useful for your volunteers, and be willing to reciprocate.

How much training do you need to provide? The answer to this depends on the degree of knowledge, skill and risk that is involved in the volunteer opportunity. For example, volunteers working directly with youth for the purpose of building an ongoing relationship are usually required to complete several hours of training up front, and continue ongoing training throughout their time commitment. Volunteers in a youth program who are assisting in the production of a large-scale celebrity-amateur golf tournament fundraising event may require less training, due to the nature and length of commitment their volunteer opportunity entails.

Orientation is a welcoming session designed to introduce the volunteer to the overall organization, mission and the basics of navigating a new work environment. Training is structured to address specific skills or information volunteers need to acquire to perform their tasks for the organization. Be sure to prepare for both for all volunteers, prior to their arrival.

Developing a Volunteer Recruitment Plan

The first ‘rule’ of volunteer recruitment and selection? Be selective, and be targeted! Yes, there are thousands of eager volunteers ready to devote their free time to support organizations like yours, but just as you carefully select paid position applicants, it is important to have a well-designed plan for recruitment and selection of volunteers, to ensure you have the right person(s) for the effort.

Targeted Volunteer Recruitment

Volunteer recruitment involves a significant investment in time and resources to yield good results. Being targeted in your approach helps you to more easily attract the volunteers who are the best fit for your program’s needs. The following steps are offered as a guide to assist you in the development of your recruitment plan.

Review the Volunteer Position Description

Specifically, review the volunteer position description you created earlier to identify specific characteristics and possible requirements you’re seeking in volunteers, such as:

  • Special skills required
  • Minimum age requirement
  • Length of time you are asking volunteers to offer
  • Transportation requirements
  • Physical requirements (heavy lifting, driving, light office work)

Develop a ‘Profile’ of the Ideal Volunteer

Using the information you gleaned from the volunteer position description, create a ‘profile’ of the person who is likely to be the best volunteer for this position. For example, an afterschool program seeking volunteers to assist with fitness activities 3 days per week may develop the following profile: adult male or female, ages 21-55, previous teaching/coaching experience with youth, physically active, available during the week in afternoons for 2 hours at least 3 days per week.

Brainstorm a List of Where to Locate Volunteers

Now that you’ve identified the characteristics of the volunteer you are seeking, think about where such volunteers spend their time. Where might they work, study, spend free time, shop, etc.? Brainstorm a list of possible places and write them down. This list will help you to determine where and how to create and disseminate your recruitment message.

Create Your Message

This is one of the most important steps of the volunteer recruitment planning process. The message you create and convey is your opportunity to ‘sell’ your program to potential volunteers. It must be brief, to the point, and grab the attention of the audience you are attempting to reach. Keep these questions in mind as you develop your recruitment message:

  • Why should a potential volunteer choose to donate their time and services to your organization? 
  • What is the appeal of the opportunity? 
  • How will it benefit the volunteer, as well as the organization and the community?

Create a message that will resonate with the audience you are attempting to reach. Use language and tone that the audience is likely to identify with.

Volunteer Recruitment Messages

Are you interested in helping children get ahead in school and making the transition to higher education easier? Do you want to share your basic knowledge with children to help them succeed in today's world? ABC Family Services has an opportunity in our Community Services Department for volunteers to tutor children ages five to twelve in reading and math…

Using a direct question draws the reader in immediately. This message, emphasizing ‘sharing basic knowledge’ is intended for audiences who are interested in helping youth do well in school, but are not professional educators.

Life’s simple pleasures: Gain more from them by spending time with a child who needs a friend. Call XYZ Mentoring Group and spend some time with us.

This straightforward message taps into the emotional rewards of volunteering as a mentor. Mentoring is messaged as fun, uncomplicated, and a natural fit into the routine of one’s life. The ‘call to action’ is an important part of this message’s impact.

Marketing and Recruitment Strategies

A great volunteer recruitment message is most effective when it’s seen and heard in the right places. Use the information from your ‘volunteer profile’ to help you determine where to distribute your message. The resources budgeted for volunteer recruitment will help determine the types of strategies you may use to recruit volunteers.

The above ideas for volunteer recruitment are intended to give you some examples to consider. Note that although major media (television, radio, billboard) advertising rates are costly, not for profit organizations and schools often can form partnerships to get public service messages at no cost, or a reduced cost. Ultimately, the impact and effectiveness of a volunteer recruitment campaign is about how well the campaign is constructed.


Proven Guidelines to Increase Response to Promotions and Recruitment Campaigns

Developing the Application and Interview Process

Pop Quiz: Do volunteers need to complete an application or be interviewed?
Answer: YES.

Although volunteers are not paid employees, it is important to have a thorough application process for volunteers, and to have a record on file of those who are involved in the work of your organization. 

Ask all volunteers to complete an application form and keep it on file

You may wish to modify your current employment application for volunteers, or use the same form. If you’re creating a new volunteer application, consider including the following information:

  • Full name and Date of Birth
  • Social Security Number (to conduct background screening vital for youth programs)
  • Contact information including full residence address and phone number
  • Hours of availability to volunteer
  • Emergency Contact
  • Previous volunteer or employment experience that may be relevant
  • References

Add additional information to complete your organization’s volunteer application. Keep the application on file, and update personal information periodically to be sure that contact and emergency information is up to date if volunteers will be involved for a long-term commitment in your organization. Be sure that this information is kept secure, but readily available to staff if needed.

Interview all prospective volunteers

The interview is an opportunity to get to know potential volunteers better. Use a consistent, written format for all volunteers to ensure consistency, and fairness. The depth of interview questions depends upon several factors including; the type of service, commitment required, skills needed, and interactions required. For example, the interview process for a one-time volunteer opportunity to remove invasive plants from protected lands would likely be much less in-depth than an interview to volunteer to lead an arts and crafts workshop in an afterschool program. 

Suggested topics for interviewing volunteers who will have contact with youth either one to one or in group settings include:

  • Applicant’s current situation, relationships, family 
  • Family history, including childhood and adolescent significant experiences
  • History and experiences working with children and youth
  • Attitudes, values, and beliefs
  • Ways to manage and respond to stressful situations
  • Level of flexibility, ability to keep commitment and develop ongoing relationships with youth
  • Education level and special skills related to position
  • Transportation requirements
  • Other relevant information…

Placement and Management of Volunteers

Have clear criteria in place for your volunteer acceptance process. Gather as much information as you need to make a determination, particularly for volunteers who will work with youth in your program. Not all volunteer applicants are best suited to perform the task they’ve applied for. Consider placing them in another role rather than turning away a supporter of your organization. Exceptions to this are individuals who do not pass background screening, have unfavorable references, or volunteers you are not comfortable with after assessing their history and/or current situation. Wherever possible, consult with a supervisor or a trusted colleague with clinical assessment skills to help you determine the appropriateness of a volunteer to work with youth.

Manager’s Tip:While you are not obligated to provide rationale if you choose not to accept a volunteer for service, ensure that your volunteer selection process is fair and equitable. Be sure to follow traditional non-discrimination practices when recruiting and placing volunteers in your organization.

After gathering information about your potential volunteer, determine their suitability for the opportunities you currently have. A volunteer with a background as an accountant may be ideal to assist with your campaign to raise capital funds for a new building, or as a board member to help support the financial affairs of the organization. A college student with limited time to devote to volunteering on the weekend may be perfect for a weekend event that needs volunteer staff to ensure its success.

Should you decide to assign a volunteer to a role different from the one they applied for, be sure to allow the volunteer to decide if they are interested in serving in a different volunteer role, without pressure. Explain the needs of the organization, and the fit that their experience and skills can contribute, then allow a day or two for the volunteer to decide.

Structuring Volunteer Management

Recruiting, training and placing volunteers involves significant effort and resources. Frequently, many organizations concentrate most of their volunteer program efforts to the early phases of the process, and have too limited resources to support volunteers once they are placed. The results can lead to volunteer drop-out, and increased efforts to recruit and train new volunteers to replace them.

During the planning process for your volunteer program, determine what level of follow up contact and support you are prepared to provide to your volunteers. Identify a Volunteer Manager, and adjust his or her current duties (or create a full time position if the volunteer program is large) to allow for the appropriate management and support of volunteers.

The Role of the Volunteer Manager

The role of the volunteer manager differs across organizations. Some organizations’ human resources departments manage volunteers, while other organizations share the tasks of volunteer management across several employees. For example, a recruiter may have a different set of tasks in the volunteer management process than a volunteer supervisor, or one staff member may be responsible for both tasks.

Volunteer managers or supervisors are generally responsible for:

  • Serving as the point of contact for assigned volunteers
  • Providing project or task delegation and following up on progress
  • Providing coaching and feedback for volunteers’ performance
  • Being available to provide support and answer volunteers questions
  • Developing ongoing volunteer appreciation efforts, and coordinating volunteer appreciation activities or events

Recognizing Volunteers Efforts

Volunteer recognition is an ongoing process! Recognition in this context means to ensure that volunteers’ efforts are valued and put to use in the organization. There are a number of ways to help volunteers feel that their efforts are valued by the organization. For volunteers who work on-site, introduction to all staff members, being greeted, and being included in staff meetings are actions that communicate that the volunteer is welcomed considered a part of the team.

Offering sincere ‘thanks’ to volunteers is essential for a job well done. Also, when volunteers can benefit from coaching or redirection, offering feedback and support for improved performance is an important way to show a volunteer that they are a valuable part of the team, and that their performance and efforts matter.

Recognition events are a frequently used method to honor volunteers. To communicate the true spirit of recognition, consider the following tips to maximize the intention of the event:

  • Top leadership in the organization attend on time, and stay throughout the event
    Additionally, leadership should greet all volunteers and communicate their personal thanks for their efforts.
  • The collective impact of volunteers is recognized and key projects and impacts are highlighted
    For example, 10 new homes were built for local families, 60 students in the school experienced a consistent, supportive mentoring relationship for the academic year.
  • Organization staff are comfortable talking with volunteers and are not grouped together at the event
    Make sure volunteers feel truly welcomed and a part of the organization by mingling with and getting to know them better 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Volunteer Recognition

The Do’s and Don’ts of Volunteer Recognition

Module Review

This module covered several key issues related to the development and management of a volunteer program including:

  • Determining the need and available resources for the development of a volunteer program includes a thorough planning process with staff and key stakeholders
  • Clear written volunteer descriptions, application, and interview tools are essential to the process before engaging volunteers for service
  • Supervision, management and ongoing acknowledgements of volunteers’ efforts is key to the successful retention of volunteers and for positive results of their efforts
Individuals or groups who have a direct or indirect interest in the actions or activities of the youth program, because of the potential impact or effect that the program may have on them directly or indirectly.

The Essentials of Volunteer Management Quiz


Download Materials from The Essentials of Volunteer Management Module


1 Eisner, D., Grimm, R.T, Jr., Maynard, S. & Washburn, S. (2009). The new volunteer workforce. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 32-37.

2 Ellis, S. (1994). When recognition isn’t enough. The Nonprofit Times. Retrieved online on 3/27/12 from

3 MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership (2005). How to build a successful mentoring program using the Elements of Effective Practice: A step-by-step tool kit for program managers. Alexandria, VA.

Module Acknowledgements

Author: Leslie Langbert, MSW, RYT 

Reviewers: Bryna Koch, MPH, Christine Bracamonte Wiggs, MPH, MS and Lynne Borden, Ph.D

Formatting Editors: Sandra Fletcher, MS, Pranav Gidwani and Kaustubh Khole

Web Developers:  Troy Dean and Will Simpson